EU's Ashton under fire over appointment of U.S. envoy

BRUSSELS Mon Feb 22, 2010 5:56pm GMT

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Catherine Ashton holds a news conference after a EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels February 22, 2010. REUTERS/Yves Herman

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Catherine Ashton holds a news conference after a EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels February 22, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Yves Herman

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's top diplomat is under pressure to explain why the bloc has appointed an ambassador to Washington without member states being widely consulted.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has written to Britain's Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, to express concern at how Portuguese diplomat Joao Vale de Almeida came to be named U.S. delegation chief.

The European Commission, the EU's executive, announced Vale de Almeida's appointment on February 17. He is close to Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who is also from Portugal, and used to serve as his chief of staff.

Although Vale de Almeida is a career EU official he lacks the diplomatic stature of the man he is replacing in Washington, former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton.

"This nomination has been done without applying the very principles now under discussion ... where transparency, member states' involvement and, above all, your role as appointing authority are key elements," Bildt wrote on February 19.

"(The) head of delegation in Washington should be a person with experience from a high political post -- for obvious reasons," he wrote, asking for the issue to be put on the agenda of a foreign ministers' meeting on Monday in Brussels.

France also expressed displeasure at how the appointment was made. Deputy Foreign Minister Pierre Lellouche said Vale de Almeida was acceptable but the procedure was poorly handled.

DIPLOMATIC FAUX PAS?

Vale de Almeida, 53, is now director-general for external relations in the European Commission, the EU's executive.

Ashton has said she fully supports Vale de Almeida's appointment and has called him an accomplished diplomat, but acknowledged on Monday that not all EU member states were happy about how the appointment was handled.

"There are one or two member states who would like to have been more involved in this," she told reporters. "We were looking for the right candidate and we have now filled it. The procedure that I have followed is exactly the right procedure."

She said someone had been needed quickly to replace Bruton, who left his high-profile position more than four months ago.

It is only from 2010 onwards, she said, that appointments will be made using a more inclusive process that will involve member states putting forward candidates for consideration.

"Understandably, member states want to be as involved from now on as possible. A couple of member states have raised this with me. We have dealt with it, it's done," Ashton said.

Ashton has faced criticism since being nominated last year, particularly from French officials and specifically over her perceived slowness in reacting to the Haiti earthquake.

She is responsible for overseeing the creation of a European diplomatic service to increase the EU's standing in world affairs, partly through high-profile ambassadorial appointments.

The Washington post is particularly important for EU member states following U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to pull out of an EU-U.S. summit scheduled for Madrid in May.